"It won't take but a moment"

4

I open the door.

"Marlena!" I say, swinging the door farther open than I intend to. "What are you doing up? I mean, are you okay? Do you want to sit down?"

"No," she says. Her face is inches from mine. "I'm all right. But I'd like to speak to you for a moment. Are you alone?"

"Uh, no. Not exactly." I say, glancing back at Walter, who's shaking his head and waving his hands furiously.

"Can you come to the stateroom?" Marlena says. "It won't take but a moment."

“Yes. Of course.”

-- Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

What does but mean? (The sentence seems like it won’t take time except that it takes only a moment, I suppose.)

Listenever

Posted 2013-10-25T11:54:21.223

Reputation: 25 811

"but" in this content means "only". Only a moment. So the sentence means the same as "It won't take a moment". (That is, it will take even less than one moment.) – Mr Lister – 2013-10-25T12:24:10.740

@MrLister I agree with the first part of your comment. It does not, however, mean "it will take even less than one moment". (Not that there's a big difference between one moment and less than one moment, mind you...) – snailplane – 2013-10-25T14:39:39.593

Hm, then what is the difference between "it will take but a moment" (from your answer) and "it won't take but a moment" (from the question)? – Mr Lister – 2013-10-25T16:48:50.063

A negative with but is like a positive with only. It's an exceptive construction; like when you say "No one but Joe ate cake", you mean "Only Joe ate cake". Here, "not but a moment" means "only a moment". I apologize for my answer being unclear! – snailplane – 2013-10-25T17:54:15.590

@MrLister Ah, I see your question. I think they mean the same thing. Not ... but means "only", and but can mean "only", as well! – snailplane – 2013-10-25T18:57:22.543

@Mr Lister, snailboat: I think the presence or absence of *but* is irrelevant to the fact that for many speakers in many contexts the negation itself also makes no inherent difference to the "duration" meaning. The biggest difference between "It won't take a minute" and "It will take a minute" is nothing to do with whether it takes exactly one minute, or more, or less. It's that (unless it includes the word "only") the non-negated version implies that a minute is a relatively long time, in the context of whatever "it" is that might be done. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-10-25T21:43:13.270

1@snailboat I don't think you can classify this as an exceptive; it is paralleled by "It won't take only a moment". Both the but and only versions are colloquial double negatives, and are, I surmise, not conscious emphatics but casual use of unanalyzed fixed phrases--compare "I couldn't care less". None of these would be accepted in a formal register. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-10-26T12:04:36.970

1@StoneyB: Yes, there's definitely something of the "optional double negative" in such constructions. Semantically it makes no real difference whether either or both elements (negated verb and/or a qualifier such as *but, only, just*) are included. It's just that including neither implies the speaker thinks the amount of time is at least long enough to bother mentioning, and including both is informal/dialectal. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-10-26T15:51:18.080

@FumbleFingers Nicely discriminated. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-10-26T16:22:50.413

1*Billy is prejudiced cause Jacks father is nothing only but just a humble butcher* is perhaps a rather extreme example, but it'd mean exactly the same (and still be in the same "register") if it'd been *ain't* instead of *is*. In such constructions, so long as you have at least one negating/minimising qualifier, it makes little difference semantically (except perhaps by adding emphasis) if you add more such terms. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-10-26T16:46:51.540

Answers

3

This is sense 10 in Collins:

just; merely; only ⇒ "he was but a child", "I can but try"

Here, the sentence means "it will only take a moment". In other words, it won't take more than one moment.

snailplane

Posted 2013-10-25T11:54:21.223

Reputation: 30 097

"Merely", yes, that was the word I was looking for. – Mr Lister – 2013-10-25T16:46:57.257